3 startups on how to create a modern, relevant brand in 2021
We speak to three female-led fashion startups on challenges, do’s and don’ts, and key takeaways from building and running their own labels in competitive industries.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
Underwear label Bare Stockholm was founded when Rebecka Lidenwall, Felicia Bladh, and Iman Malmberg started talking about the frustration of never finding underwear that was both comfortable, long-lasting, beautiful, and sustainably produced. They wanted their own brand to tick all those boxes and change the way underwear is made by following the ”buy less but better” principle. The products are made in Portugal by suppliers and manufacturers who share their commitment to clean production processes and sustainability.
Founded by Jemina Pomoell and Maria Paulsson Rönnbäck, Astrid Wild is a digitally native direct-to-consumer outdoor fashion brand for women, designed by women. Focusing on minimalistic aesthetics, gender equality, and the love for nature, the duo has set a mission to inspire women worldwide to live a healthier and happier life by spending time outdoors.
Entrepreneur Mathilda Wibom Westerberg is based on Upper West Side in New York. The last couple of years she’s been running her own company, Juniper, with premium home essentials inspired by the unparalleled experience one gets at a secluded luxury boutique hotel. The products are a great mix of quality and sustainability, including the newly launched towel collection which is timelessly designed and made from the world’s finest cotton, Supima. ”It instantly transforms any bathroom into a spa,” to use Wibom Westerberg’s own words.
”We feel it’s crucial to involve the following of the brand on social media … to make them feel like they are a part of the brand”
Except for obvious things, such as working with quality and sustainability, what’s important when you run a brand in 2021 to stay modern and relevant? And, has this changed in the past few years?
Wibom Westerberg, Juniper: To really find the soul of the brand and living that out across all channels. You need to be able to convey your beliefs to your customers and your beliefs should manifest themselves not just from what you do and what you say but in how you use visuals such as photographs, fonts, and so on.
Under-investing in brand for the benefit of short-term sales is a really easy trap to fall into.
Even though I think we have been true to the real identity of Juniper with regards to some aspects for a really long time, what the brand is has also changed during these two years and now I think is the first time when I think it is getting really clear to me. So, now we just need to convey that to the public and hope that others feel they have the same values as us.
Building purely digital brands in the design space principally didn’t exist before Warby Parker was started in 2010. Since then, a lot has happened but even brands like Casper and Brooklinen that have grown to be huge were only started in 2014. That’s not such a long time ago when you compare to most legacy brands. So I think the need for brand building in a purely digital environment definitely has changed.
The digital era also puts much greater pressure on companies to be transparent in their practices and consumers overall have much higher demands. Relative to our size, we probably do at least as much as any other company in terms of sustainability efforts — yet, we regularly end up in long discussions with potential customers who don’t feel we do enough.
Lidenwall, Bladh, and Malmberg, Bare Stockholm: For us, the most important things are to really get to know your customers and to be open and responsive to the feedback you receive. Also, building and maintaining a close relationship with everyone involved with your brand is very important. We feel it’s crucial to involve the following of the brand on social media, to interact with them, and make them feel like they are a part of the brand. We do this by involving them in our process from choosing fabric and colors, sharing our visits to the factory and asking for feedback on our products, and being responsive to it. To stay relevant, you really have to ask yourself if you stand for every aspect of the brand’s values and be sure you walk the talk. We feel that the biggest change is the customer behaviour — they are demanding more transparency and authenticity from brands than before and it’s important for brands to articulate their values and quickly adapt to rapidly changing customer demands.
Paulsson Rönnbäck, Astrid Wild: I think the extension of community is inclusivity, which is about broadening the range of women portrayed in your campaigns, like ethnicity, size, and age. It’s also about actually building together with your community, including them in what you’re doing, and being totally transparent in how you operate and why.
Sustainability is a mindset that guides us in every decision. Our whole operating model supports sustainability, with the direct-to-consumer approach enabling demand-driven production, and the lack of seasonal collections helps to avoid deadstock and product waste. Our sourcing is centered in Europe, minimizing transportation and ensuring good working conditions at our production sites. When it comes to materials, we aim to use the best possible fabrics for the garment’s use case and promote recycled and natural materials as much as possible.
And yes, it has totally changed over the last years. The fashion industry has been very elitist and closed — I’m happy to see it changing.
”We sign everything off with our names … and we show how we and our friends use our products”
From an outside perspective, building a community around the brand is crucial. Do you agree? If so, how do you work with yours?
Lidenwall, Bladh, and Malmberg, Bare Stockholm: Totally agree! The community is the soul of the brand. It’s really the best way of involving people in your brand and making them feel that they have a voice and can affect the brand’s choices. We feel really strongly about this.
We communicate via our social media, newsletters, and hopefully, when the current situation changes, our plan is to do real-life events, focusing on educating and bringing value rather than selfies and goodiebags. We believe our brand can become so much more than just a product, we want to raise topics that are relevant to women’s health, sustainability, and female empowerment. Our plan is to involve women in our community to raise these topics, we can really learn from each other so much more. We believe sharing is everything. We will also work with ambassadors and influencers who share our values to widen our reach. We feel it’s crucial to communicate with a voice of authenticity, to be inclusive, and to make our brand feel relatable to other women out there.
”I think the term ’community’ is a little bit overused in brand building”
Wibom Westerberg, Juniper: Yes and no. I think the term ”community” is a little bit overused in brand building. I certainly would like to see a community around Juniper, but realistically, we are selling bed linens — it is not the most engaging product nor is there anything natural to discuss around. So community in the classic sense of the word is probably not really going to happen. But I certainly hope we will have advocates for the brand because what we do resonates with their beliefs. And if we are really successful and keep building Juniper into the hotel niche, then perhaps one day a community will naturally arise around what we do.
We of course work with Instagram, Facebook, and newsletters. On our Instagram, we choose a hotel that we find inspiring somewhere and then we bring forward content inspired by that environment. It is not necessarily just the hotel, it can also be about nature, the people or other activities you can do there. But it all ties back to that hotel experience. We also communicate about our values and the work we do. So product, sustainability efforts, and to some degree slow living will come in as well.
Our newsletters are almost like a magazine-like experience where we offer our subscribers articles about hotels, reading lists, and curated Spotify playlists. But again, here we mix this with communicating about our values and the work we do. So product and driving sales do come in, but it is definitely not the primary focus, and we also communicate about our sustainability efforts. For example, we have an idea to completely get rid of conventional plastics from all our packaging — from our tier 1 suppliers and all the way to the end customer. This will essentially eliminate more than 99% of all plastics we use. We haven’t announced this idea to our subscribers just yet but we probably will as soon as we have a reasonable timeline for getting it in place. And then we might update our subscribers halfway through the process on how far we’ve come and then again when we complete it.
Through both our organic and paid communication I am also quite personally involved as the face of the brand. To me, this has been really important and creates a sense of accountability which I think people can appreciate from the outside.
Paulsson Rönnbäck, Astrid Wild: Yes, absolutely. I’d say Astrid Wild is born out of several communities, from Her Online Network in Stockholm where we found our designer and members who helped us navigate the fashion world, to all the Facebook groups we used to crowdsource customer insights and of course our own community or following that we talk with every hour, every day. And this is what really sets us apart in the outdoor clothing sector, that we utilize a digital customer connection to co-create products together with our community. This way we can both optimize our operations and at the same time engage our community.
Firstly, we’re very personal in our communication, we sign everything off with our names, we have a picture of us, the founders, in the newsletter, and we show how we and our friends use our products. Secondly, we base all product development decisions on input received from our community. When we first started we got told from the ”old fashion” industry that you can’t ask customers what they want, because they don’t know. I don’t think that’s true, women do know what they want, and what’s missing today on the market. You just have to listen to them! Practically, we use Instagram to source feedback. People love that! Thirdly, we really, really do try to provide not just sales messages but content that is of actual value to our community, whether it’s fun, cute, interesting, or inspiring. A hard balance between sales and inspiration, but you need that to build a brand and not just be a window shop.
”We received a bunch of angry emails back saying we had lost them as a customer”
In a futural perspective, how will brands need to progress to stay relevant onwards?
Paulsson Rönnbäck, Astrid Wild: I think the magic pill besides having an ear on the ground all the time and talking with your community, is staying up to date with technology. We’re in a digital transformation and tech depicts everything, from your point of sales to logistics to production.
Wibom Westerberg, Juniper: This is of course difficult to answer and depends a lot on the company. But if your company identity is clear and you are able to communicate your core ideas and beliefs to your audience then you will almost certainly be relevant to someone.
We, for example, chose to write a newsletter about what steps individuals could take to support the Black Lives Matter movement. We received a bunch of angry emails back saying we had lost them as a customer. Of course, we didn’t want to make people feel angry with us but for us, the belief and message were more important than the customers we lost. And hopefully, small actions like that accumulate over time, and for some people, Juniper will feel super relevant, for others, it might not — but I am sure we will find our group.
Lidenwall, Bladh, and Malmberg, Bare Stockholm: We’d say it’s important to understand the generational consumer behaviour, specifically gen Y and Z, and how this behaviour has changed from one generation to another. The new generation wants to be a part of the change and they want to position themselves by choosing where to spend their money by reading up on brand’s values before committing.
What else do you have coming?
Paulsson Rönnbäck, Astrid Wild: We have a couple of launches coming up this spring, water repellent hiking tights and high-waisted outdoor shorts being two of them. Can’t wait to see more of Astrid being worn in the Wild, women hiking in Sarek, surfing in France, walking their dog in Småland, or creating snow art in Jukkasjärvi.
Wibom Westerberg, Juniper: 2019 was about figuring out product-market fit. 2020 was all about nailing down our brand identity. 2021 is about scaling. We are adding several new products, towels being the first, and we’ll keep adding new categories to strengthen our core offering even further. However, I also need to practice sometimes just taking one step back and actually enjoying what we have achieved so far, there is no end to the journey, there is no way to ”win” this, so it is also about just enjoying every day and the journey we are on.
Lidenwall, Bladh, and Malmberg, Bare Stockholm: Our main focus now is our launch collection, we are trying to stay open-minded and responsive to the feedback we receive. We will focus on improving and fine-tuning our products and customer experience and hopefully have a successful launch. We just had our pre-launch opening for our most dedicated customers and are thrilled by the results. We are filled with so much love and gratefulness for everything coming our way. It’s true the saying ”every time you buy from a small brand an actual person makes a dance”.